We've said goodbye to one World Cup host, let's not make it two

New Zealand trickled out of its home World Cup after a goalless draw with Switzerland, while Australia prepares for a date with destiny.

Katie Bowen chewed her shirt on a frigid night Dunedin Ōtepoti.

She stared into the middle distance. She clocked the scoreboard. Glancing at it, as if to confirm that it still read full-time. Just to check. Make sure reality was reality.

Perhaps there was a mistake. Did it actually finish New Zealand 0-0 Switzerland?

Alas. The Football Ferns’ fates were sealed. And the tournament co-hosts did indeed exit at the Group Stage of the 2023 World Cup.

Moments later, tears dried, Bowen dusted herself down to speak to her national team media channels. How was she feeling?

”Honestly, truly gutted,” Bowen confided. “I’m pretty upset, but so proud of the team and the squad. I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else. Thank you to New Zealand for getting behind us. We heard you, we saw your messages. So, thank you.”

Katie Bowen, Ria Percival, Ali Riley, Sam Kerr, and Tony Gustavsson (left to right) | Telemundo - NZ Football - Optus Sport

It’s been a whirlwind for the Kiwis. The ecstasy of kicking off a home tournament with a first-ever World Cup win over a very talented - albeit self-destructive - Norway side was hard to replicate.

The tempo the Football Ferns discovered in that 1-0 was never found again. A magic elixir with only a few drops. Hannah Wilkinson’s winning goal was a sweet drink with maybe a bitter aftertaste. After all, that strike against Norway opened and closed New Zealand’s goalscoring at this World Cup.

In some ways, the 1-0 defeat to the Philippines will feel like the moment that the belief of a debut appearance in the knockout rounds began to fade. No longer the protagonist in the fairytale; New Zealand went from being Cinderella to the wicked Stepmother quicker than you can say: glass slipper.

To be fair, the Kiwis did show plenty of spark that night. They cracked the post and provoked several stunning saves from Filipina keeper Olivia McDaniel. That night in Wellington, New Zealand produced more non-penalty xG (1.9) than their other two matches combined.

There was something cruel about it all coming to an end against the possession-heavy Swiss. Death by a thousand tiny cuts. A blank drawn. The central Europeans have been playing keep away at this tournament.

Their style of play can look like the 11 players on the pitch are playing a game of ‘Pass The Parcel’ with each other rather than trying to score. Even with the most sequences of 10 or more passes per match (16), and the most passes (1,485), the Swiss rank 16th for xG per 90 minutes. One place behind New Zealand.

“I’m so proud of them”

It doesn’t all have to be sullen. Away from the cold reality of the results, New Zealand football got a serious shot in the arm over the past 10/11 days of the tournament. And the many years that went into putting it together.

The mission was to inspire. To win a match at a World Cup. They achieved both of those goals. There’s plenty to be proud of. And they know it.

“You know, there’s such disappointment but I wanted everyone to know, be proud,” Kiwi captain Ali Riley defiantly told Sky Sports NZ on Sunday night.

“To finish on four points. The crowd cheering for us. So much, just, love. And I really think we’ve inspired the country. I hope little girls across New Zealand - across the world now - will start playing the sport…and dream bigger than ever before….we wanted to inspire, we wanted honour the Ferns that came before us. This team did that. I’m so proud of them.”

Hopefully, Riley can enjoy the rest of the home tournament. With friends, with family. With her favourite vegan eats on the islands and some cheeky pints.

Personally, I’m not ready for the Kiwis to depart. It feels premature. A vibe kill.  My heart-rate is still only just about coming down to normal from that opening match. (Wilkinson’s chest thump, the whole of New Zealand is with you).

In my opinion, the hosts are integral to making World Cups what they are. And I’m anxious that on Monday we could be about to experience the agony of co-hosts Australia also ending their stay in the competition on.

The atmosphere at Australia matches has been electric. Perhaps, like New Zealand, the nervous energy and buoyancy turned to crippling pressure. A rugged win on Matchday One was followed up with a valiant chase and crushing defeat on Matchday Two.

And yes, another stubborn team that plays in a red kit awaits the Matildas in Melbourne too. Canada is just the team you do not want to play when you need to win, and the opposition only needs a draw to qualify for the Round of 16.

And then there’s the Sam Kerr dilemma.

On Sunday, the Chelsea forward declared herself fit to play again. Although, there wasn’t any clairty as to whether that would be in the starting XI or from the bench.

Good ole uncle Tony Gustavsson has gone viral again for his interview on Optus Sport that mostly tried to avoid saying anything concrete about whether Australia’s star player will be fit to play in Group B’s decisive match.

Later when asked about the gamble of playing Kerr before she is fully ready, the Matildas’ coach elaborated by saying: "What are the risks? If we manage to go through to the playoffs... There's a lot to discuss.”

At the end of the day, all we know is that Sam Kerr has football boots on again. And was seen hovering around her teammates at training. It remains very unlikely that she will be utilized in a 100% capacity.

Down over?

To lose two host nations in two days would be extremely brutal. But for Australia to host a World Cup and do it without Sam Kerr playing a single minute of football might be even crueler.

Crueler still. Imagine a half-fit Kerr coming off the bench, with the hopes of a nation on her shoulders, and trying to score the winning goal against Canada. But instead of the Kerr you know, it’s discomfort. Unfamiliar aches. Rust. Maybe even an aggravated injury.

I’m not here to doom cast. I’m here to manifest. I want Australia in the Round of 16 because I think it’s good for the tournament. For the vibes. The narrative. I’ll struggle to get out of bed if Kerr isn’t given a moment to be a fully fit version of herself at a home World Cup.

I just hope Gustavsson and Kerr don’t risk anything on the way to trying to achieve that goal.

Next time you read words on this page, I hope it’s with the ‘Tillies still dreaming of a final in Sydney on the 20th of August.